Hello and welcome back to Brain in the Game. Brain in the Game is a podcast that's been specifically designed for athletes, coaches and parents who are looking to do their sport just that little bit smarter. And I'm your host, Dave Diggle.
In this Episode 81, we're going to look at why do athletes choke under pressure? So let's get into it and deal with this incredibly highly emotive subject. So why do athletes choke under pressure? Even coaches choke under pressure. I've stood on the side of many a competitive environment and watched the coach go through way more challenging emotional highs and lows than the athlete. And in actual fact, the reason a coach chokes and the reason an athlete chokes are exactly the same. Let's understand the reason behind that. So if we understand everybody chokes and we understand everyone's human, well, we like to think everyone's human, even coaches are human. But we understand everyone's human and we all choke for exactly the same reason. And that's a disconnect between what we're looking to do and perform and how much we trust it.
So let me get really nerdy at the start of this podcast and let me explain to you, those of you who've not listened to my podcast before or have not seen me coach live, I look at the way that our brain builds trust.
So ultimately, we want to be in a place of performing subconsciously, so that a part of the brain that we talk about being in flow or being in the zone, all of that is subconscious performance. But we have to build it before we can send it to the subconscious. And we build it in our prefrontal cortex, the critical thinking component of our brain. And because that critical thinking component of our brain is highly intellectual, but highly judgey as well, what it's looking for is to create perfection. Although we can never reach perfection, what the frontal cortex of our brain is looking to try and do is create something that's not achievable, because what it's looking to do is protect us. So that prefrontal cortex is like the boss in the office. If you think of it like a factory, it's the boss. Often they see it as their baby, their organisation. So what they're trying to do is create the optimal outcome. They're trying to protect it, make sure it's sustainable, and set it on its way.
And because of that, they're ultra focused on threat. And that threat can be physical. So is it physically going to hurt me? Is it physically going to threaten me? Threaten my existence?
But it can also be on emotional threat too. So is it going to embarrass me? Is it going to make me feel bad? Is it going to make me feel inadequate? Is it going to exclude me from the pack that I want to be part of? All humans are pack animals. Sometimes our brain will say, 'Don't say, do, or act that way because the pack might exclude you.' If you've ever been to school and played in the playground, then you know what I mean by this.
So our prefrontal cortex, the boss in that office, it will design all strategies that we put out there, that we perform, that we execute. It would design how we do the skills. It will design how we build that performance, that routine, the execution. And what it's looking to do is create the best in its mind, in its context, the perfect blueprint so that there's no doubts, there's no 'what ifs', there's nothing that's going to go, 'There's a threat in there that we just didn't take seriously or pay attention to.' So it's incredibly diligent.
But because of this diligence, it creates a backlog, it's slow. We can't necessarily multitask when we're thinking about the how. We can't necessarily put things in context when we're thinking about the how. We can't necessarily execute with confidence when we're thinking about the how, because what we're thinking about is what's going to bring this down? What's going to make it go wrong? What's going to create an environment that's not conducive to me being happy, or involved with this, or even safe? So the prefrontal cortex works on: when can I trust this? And as an athlete, we need to build into our process: what's my metrics? How do I know that I can trust this? Because when we're learning a skill, a routine, or anything, what we're looking to do is delegate from the prefrontal cortex to the subconscious, the workers on the factory floor. If the boss is in the office, we want to delegate it to the workers on the factory floor because the workers on the factory floor don't think, they just execute. And because they don't think and they just execute, they travel at 20 times faster. So if you've ever been in that state of flow where everything is just happening, everything just feels, and I use that word purposely, everything just feels easy.
It feels like you've got all the time in the world. That's because it's just being executed. That blueprint, if we think of it like dominoes, the first one has been tipped and it's just going through the pattern. That is where we want to perform from. If, and when, we perform in that subconscious, that high degree of trust, then we don't choke. We may still make mistakes, but they're technical mistakes that need to be corrected. So if we're thinking about that blueprint, we're thinking about those dominoes lined up to make a pattern, we may need to adjust that pattern, move a domino. But the reality is we won't choke. We won't get there and go, 'I can't do this.' So if we can create a world where we are optimally trusting what we do, then choking becomes less and less of an issue. And when it becomes less and less of an issue, our prefrontal cortex, the boss in the office, can wipe their hands and go, 'Yeah, I'm just going to sit here. And if something comes up, if something left field, or as we talk about the what if, what if this happened? I've got the critical thinking capacity to deal with it in the moment.'
And that is the optimal performance environment, psychologically. When everything that we've trained is being executed subconsciously in our prefrontal cortex is just sitting there waiting. If something happens, it will deal with it. If it doesn't, it's going to enjoy the ride. That is ultimately what we're looking to create. Unfortunately, there's several things that act against that in preparation and in performance that triggers an athlete or coach to choke. We now understand how choking occurs. It's a distrust. It's where the subconscious goes, 'Hey, look, something's going on here. We're not paid enough to fix it in this high degree, fast moving flow state. So we're going to send it back to the boss's office because if there's something wrong, it's their job. They get paid the big bucks to fix it.' And there's a multitude of different things that can create that distrust. Let's unpack them.
If in our preparation, we haven't executed the skill, the routine, the performance, then absolutely come competition day, game day, we're going to stand there and go, 'I haven't done this. I don't know if I can do this. I've never executed this.' And as all you athletes out there and coaches and probably even parents going, 'Why would anybody ever execute something in competition that they've not executed in preparation?' I'm here to tell you, I've seen it. I've seen it numerous times.
Sometimes it's the athlete going, 'It's all good, Coach. I can do this. I know I can do this. Give me the opportunity.'
Sometimes it's the coach going, 'I know you can do this. I think under the pressure of competition lights, you're going to be able to execute this.'
Sometimes it's parents going, 'We've put all this time, effort, and money into your sporting career. You need to be doing this.'
Sometimes it's selection. An athlete will go, 'I know I've never trained this, perform this in preparation, but if I don't do this, I'm never going to get selected, so it's now or never.'
All of these things sometimes may work. A very minute percentage of the time, it may come together and work. How do you however, the reality, the vast majority of the time, all you're doing is setting yourself up to move everything out of subconscious back into the conscious, and for you to overthink and look for threats. Like I said, the prefrontal cortex, the job of the prefrontal cortex, the boss in the office, is to protect you. And if that part of your brain thinks that there's either a physical, emotional, or social threat, it will stop you.
It will take away, if we're thinking about the dominoes, it will take away a key domino. This is where we get mental blocks from. This is why athletes go to compete and they get performance amnesia. They'll go to do something, but the process has been removed. So that's just a brain going, 'Hey, I know you're not going to listen to me and you're going to go out there and you're going to try and force this outcome. So what I'm going to do is going to take that away from you because I don't want you to hurt yourself. I don't want you to be embarrassed and I don't want you to be excluded from the team. So you're not going to execute this.' It's designed to do that. Everybody's brain is designed to do that. And it's a good strategy. It's a good strategy when all you need to do is go out and hunt for a living, or you need to go out and build fire or live in a cave. But we don't do that anymore. What we do in today's society is way more necessary for us to be able to perform all the time.
Otherwise, if we don't perform as an athlete, we don't get selected, we don't get paid in our jobs. So we have to override that innate part of our brain that says, 'Yeah, I'm just going to be here and, hey, no guilt, I'm going to absolutely stop you from doing this.'
So that's where choking comes from. It's a lack of trust. So as an athlete, we have a responsibility in our preparation to build trust, to build recognition. And historically, what we've done is overtrain. I want to do 4,352 routines this week so that I know. Well, that's not realistic. That's not how we want to go out and build trust, because the more times we do something, we increase physical exertion. We increase physical exertion, we then become both physically, mentally, and emotionally fatigued. When we become more physically, mentally, and emotionally fatigued, we make more mistakes. When we make mistakes, we add doubt, which keeps it anchored in our prefrontal cortex. So it's not about doing more, it's about knowing what the metrics to success are. So how do I know I can do that skill? And you're probably sitting there going, 'Hey, Dave, it's when I can do it in competition.'
And I'll go, 'Wrong. It's when you hit it in preparation.' And know it so well, you know that blueprint, you know those domino patterns that you've just created in your head so well that you know I can trigger that, it's going to happen. So having a very clear metric to either a skill, a performance, or a routine will make you more trusting of that process.
I talk about what's called the emotional slider. Where you put emotion will dictate how much of your process you can see and execute. When you add emotion into the process, you cloud the remaining part of the process. So wherever you enter that emotion, whether it be halfway through the process or at the start of the process, everything after that emotion becomes clouded. So therefore, we doubt our ability to execute. So when you go to competition, the reality is you're going to stand there and be highly emotive. Unless you're not human, unless you're an AI or a robot, the reality is you're going to stand there, your emotions are going to be greater than they were in training. Because emotions are important. It proves a value to us.
You want to do well, you want to perform well. So you're going to stand there and go, 'This is important to me.' And the way that we gauge importance is how it makes us feel. If it makes us feel that we're going to be accepted, we're going to be selected, we're going to be proud of ourselves, our coach is going to be proud of us, our parents are going to be proud of us, then of course, we want it to go well. So our emotions are going to rise. That means that if our emotions go in front of our process, then absolutely we're going to feel we're going to be able to trust it because we can't see and execute that blueprint. If we can't see and execute that blueprint, it adds doubt. So the fear of the unknown comes in, the 'what if'. What if I make a mistake? What if I fall off? So we're not trusting that blueprint, that set of dominoes. So trust is critical.
Now, why does this play out for coaches? Because coaches are standing there and trusting the athlete is going to take care of it. Often, the results of that athlete will impact the earning capability of that coach. It will impact the pride of that coach. It will impact that coach's ability to influence that athlete and future athletes. There's a huge amount riding on the performance of that athlete for that coach. If that coach doesn't trust the athlete has got this, then their emotions are going to rise and what they're going to try and do is take back control. And they're going to try and override the athlete by saying, 'You need to go and do this. This is what you need to focus on. Make sure you tick this box. Make sure you've done that. Make sure you salute to the judges. Make sure that you stick your landing. Make sure you stick the ball between the up rights.' And you start to over coach when they should be in performer mode. So the same way that if our emotions take everything from our trusted subconscious back into a prefrontal cortex. Our coach standing there and taking the athlete out of performer mode back into student mode and having to reteach them or overteach them, creates the same amount of doubt, takes it from our subconscious, trust it and brings it back to our prefrontal cortex and overthinking part.
So coaches can drag an athlete out of performer mode, increase doubt purely and simply by showing that, Oh, I need to keep coaching you right up until you perform. All coaches are guilty of this. All coaches have that sense of, 'I don't know if I can trust. I don't know if they're going to do this. I believe in them, but I haven't got the metrics to trust them. They haven't done enough routines.' So a coach can use the same degree of metrics as an athlete. I want to do more to feel like I've done more. Rather than I've done what I need to do. So this is the difference between wants and needs. Do you want to do 4,352 or do you need to do three or four? And the reality is you only need to do three or four and go, 'Yeah, I've got that.' That allows your prefrontal cortex to slide that pattern to your subconscious and you're way less likely to choke. Same with the coach. If you don't communicate that and coordinate that with the coach, then the coach doesn't know. They think, 'You've only done five routines,' or 'You've only done five of this exercise or this skill. How are they going to be able to do that?'
But if you say, 'Hey, Coach, I only needed to do five. I've done five. I've ticked that box.'
So this is why at the Smart Mind, we teach the funnelling process. The funnelling process is to take it out of your emotional assumption of I've done enough, to the cognitive ability of, 'Yep, look at that list. I know I've ticked everything off in that list. I know I can perform this.' So under pressure, when the emotions rise, you can sit there and go, 'Yeah, I'm nervous, but I know.' And you are way less likely to choke under pressure. All pressure is is an increase in emotional consequence. It's not, 'I don't know if you can do this.' It's, 'You've got to do this now.' Can you tip the first domino, execute that blueprint, and perform? If you can go, 'I know how to execute that blueprint, and yes, I can perform,' you will override the urge to choke. You will override the urge for your brain to take back control, take part of that blueprint away and go, 'No, you're not doing this. You're not putting yourself out there to physically, mentally, or socially embarrass yourself.'
So the consequences of distrust, of overtraining, and overthinking, creates an increase in potential for choke. So we build the funnel process. And the better the funnel process, the more detailed that is, more tailored to you as an athlete, the more collaborative that is with you and your coach, the more everybody is going to trust. If you can trust it, you can perform it. And that needs to be done in your preparation.
Now, we talked before about non athlete student and performer modes in our brain. Each one of those has a different role to play in who we are as a human and as a performing athlete. The non athlete is the non athlete. It's what you are when you're not training, competing. It's that person that you are with your family, with your partners, with your friends. It's that person that sits at home and puts her feet up and watches a movie. It's relaxed you.
The student version of you is the version of you that when you go to training, it's about pushing boundaries, trying new things. It's about learning those blueprints, those patterns. It's about creating in our prefrontal cortex the how. Once I know how, then I can delegate that to my subconscious, and that becomes a performer mode. And that's what turns up on competition day. However, again, when you look at the funnel process, the 7 to 2 Smart Mind Funnel process, you'll see down the side it's got student-performer percentages. And as we go from the start of our preparation process, where the vast majority of it is in student mode, all the way to the night before the competition or the game or selection, being almost all performer mode. And that's the ability to switch between 'I'm creating' and 'I'm executing'. And the difference between I don't yet trust this enough to I trust this 100%, I've delegated it to my subconscious so I know I can perform it. If we don't utilise that in a structured format, get into game day, competition day, trials, standing there and gone, 'Okay, I know I've trained this, but I've not completed this.' And this is where many athletes and coaches, and parents by the way, fall into the trap of, 'It's all about game day. It's only as good as a competition day.'
There's so much pressure both internally from the athlete themselves and externally from everybody else that's placed on that performance that's not been proven. That performance needs to have been proven long before we get to that execution in that moment. If we haven't built that in, we don't have those metrics, then absolutely choking becomes an option. It becomes a self preservation mechanism your brain is going to activate because it's sat in there going, 'This is really, really important. Everyone's applying this pressure. You're applying the pressure to yourself and I don't trust it. And if I don't trust it, I'm pulling the pin.'
So it makes sense, right? In the student, we need to execute the performer. So when we're building our percentages, we teach our brain to be able to switch in. I say, even if you're learning a brand new skill and tonight was the first time that you trained it, then 10% of your training needs to be dedicated to performing that new skill as a performer. To whatever degree, whatever capabilities, even if you've only learned 25% of that skill, then you need to learn, 'Okay, I've got this 25%, I'm going to execute it.'
So you switch your brain into constantly going, 'Yeah, if I'm learning something, at some point, I need to execute that skill.' So that is a vital component that athletes and coaches don't necessarily optimise. I've stood in many, many, many environments when they'll say, 'Right, we're learning something new tonight,' and they'll keep learning and learning and learning. 'Right, we're going to shift to something else now. We're going to go and do another exercise or another apparatus or another skill.' And they don't tie off that new skill that they're learning. So it's open ended. And when it's open ended, we allow emotion in. When we allow emotion in, it starts to cloud everything that we've already learnt. When we think of it like that concept, I want to be able to tie it off, so emotion can't get in and corrupt what I've learnt already. That makes logical sense, doesn't it? Even if you're completely outside competition season and you're learning new skills, you're upskilling what you're doing already, every single session needs to have a small percentage that's dedicated to performing and execution because it's that tying off at the end. It's eliminating gaps that the emotion can get in and create doubts.
Another thing that we want to be conscious of is effort. And over the years of working with athletes and coaches, I've used many, many different ways to allocate effort. And what some athletes will do will become very dichotomic. When they're learning skills, it's a very low effort input. Come competition time, it's a very high effort input. It's game day. I'm going to switch it on. I'm going to go to a whole new level. I'm going to go out there and knock it out of the park. What you create is a disconnect between the training and your performance. When you give different values to the time, then you create different focal points. So you create a disconnect between what I've trained and what I execute. So we want to have a sliding scale.
Now, wherever you are listening to this, you're going to have to translate this into your local fuel percentages. So petrol or gasoline, depending on where you are around the world. Here in Australia, where I'm speaking to you from today, we have three different fuel qualities when we're talking about petrol or gasoline. Not talking about diesel or gas or whatever, we're talking about petrol or gasoline.
We have 91, which is low octane level. We've got 95, which is mid range octane level. And we've got 98, which is high octane level. Now, low octane is cheaper, and that cheaper fuel allows us to go further on the dollar. So it's not particularly great for your vehicles, but it's a cheap and cheerful fuel that we can put into our cars if we're not overly worried about performance, we're not overly worried about making sure that we're burning clean fuel, we can use 91. We'll save a few dollars or we'll be able to fill up that tank a bit further. Then we've got 95. Now, 95 is that mid range. It's going to allow us still to get a little bit of savings out of that. It's not as bad as 91 for our vehicles, but it's not as good as 98. It doesn't burn as clean as 98, but we're still going to be able to go a fair distance on it, and it's going to be a little bit more efficient and effective and cleaner for our cars or our vehicles, whatever vehicle we're putting in. Then the highest street value fuel that we have here in Australia is 98. That is the most expensive street fuel you can get. At the moment, everywhere around the world, I think fuel is incredibly expensive. So a lot of people are using different lower grade fuels thinking, I've got to save money. I've got to conserve what's in my wallet. So 98 will burn higher, but it will cost more.
So why am I talking about fuels? Because our focus can be correlated to those fuels. And in tough times, we might go, I'm just going to go and do more exercise. So therefore, I've got to go further. So I'm going to have a lower degree of focus because it's not going to be as taxing on me, but I've got to go and do those 3,256 routines. So you know what? I'm going to do lots of them, low quality and just churn them out. Then expect us to rock up at competition and operate at a much higher fuel capacity. It just doesn't work like that. Thinking about these 91, 95, 98 fuels, if we're 91, for me, that's non athlete. That's you sitting at home watching Netflix or eating a pizza or hanging out with your friends or doing family time. That's all about duration.
When we go to training, we go into that student mode, we need to increase the quality of our focus. We need to increase the quality of our interaction. So we go to that 95. That 95 allows us still to get X amount of training hours in, but at a much higher focal quality.
And then when we get close to competition, when we've got that performer mode in training, we need to be operating at that 98. So it burns cleaner, it's a shorter focal time, but it's a much more bigger return on quality.
So can you see the correlation between 91, 95, 98? And again, depending on where you are in the world, you're going to have different fuels. (My hands, I'm using my hands when I'm talking here. I keep belting the microphone, so I apologise for that. I'm very animated when I'm talking.) The 91, 95, 98 are super important when we're thinking about what's my objective here. If my objective is to learn, then I want to be learning at a 95. But before I finish this session, I'm going to switch into that 98, higher focus and operate a performance.
Now, we forget one. Having worked in motor racing, this high octane fuel, that F1 fuel. Now, that's stupidly expensive. And you certainly wouldn't go and do the groceries in your car, and put in that F1 fuel in your car. But what you would do is want to perform there. So there's four levels of focus.
91: non athlete
98: performer mode in preparation
High octane: competition day.
So all of this allows you to edge towards optimal focus. And then when you finish that performance, you want to be debriefing at 98, take that back to 95 when you debrief with your team, all the way back to 91 when the competition is over and you go back home again. So being able to debrief, collect the data, allows us to build better trust. Everything that stays in our head stays emotive. So getting it out of our head, down on paper, or discussing it with somebody, allows us to put it into a construct. When it puts into construct, we have to have logic behind it. That allows us to collect the data. 'You know what? The end of training session today, I'm going to do my journal. I'm going to do a personal debrief. What worked or didn't work, what do I need to do different? What worked was A, B, C, and D. You know what, I can start trusting that. What didn't work was this. Now I've got a strategy to put that right tomorrow.' We don't then tarnish that whole training session as 'It didn't work.' It's, 'Yeah, that worked, that worked, that worked, and that worked. But you know what? This isn't yet there.' So you leave one component in the boss's office where the rest of it is already starting to be delegated. Then when we do that, we recognise and reward. We increase that positive emotion to that process. Remember I said to you, when you introduce emotion, it clouds everything after that process, so it increases doubt. We need to retrain our brain to put the emotion at the end of the process. When I executed that routine, it went really well. I'm really proud of that. Tick that box. That was really good. We recognise it, we reward it, we keep the process, and we retrain our brain to put emotion at the end of the process.
Now, every athlete at some point will choke. As a mental performance expert, I know if that athlete is capable of doing that skill, doing that routine, so they've not just gone out there and gone, It's my first day ever, I'm going to apply this. If they've trained it and they know how to do it, then by trusting it will stop the choke. If they trust it above everybody else's criticism, above everybody else's fear, be that the coach, be that the team, be that the parents, and they can say, 'No, no, I trust this. I've got this because I know how to do this,' then they will not choke. The brain has no reason to step in and go, I'm going to take back control because I have fear. I hope all of that makes sense to you. I'm sure if you're a competitive athlete, if you're a coach, even sometimes if you're a parent, you can look at it and go, 'I've been there. I've used emotion to take everything that I've trusted and put it back in the boss's office and create distrust.' Not allowed yourself to perform in flow state, in that zone. Trying to perform in that I need to take control, that forcing outcome state.
So the funnel process, the metrics, the fuels, the debriefing or journaling each night, all of these components will allow you to eliminate, and I use that word purposely, to eliminate choking under pressure. If you don't do these things and you allow emotion in, then you allow the choke back in. Whether that's 1%, 5% or 95%, you're allowing that choke back in, that doubt. Hope you got a lot from this episode of Brain in the Game. I really have a passion around empowering the athlete. And the way that we empower the athlete is give them the tools for them to be able to perform the way they want to perform under pressure.
We teach a Mental Gladiator program. It's a 30 day program that's designed specifically to teach athletes how to prepare and how to perform. It teaches them this funnel system. It teaches them how to communicate, how to look after their preparation process, all the way down to competition, and then how to execute with trust. If you want to know more about how to get onto the Mental Gladiator, we run this program three times a year. We're just in the process of wrapping up the first one for 2023.
But if you want to get onto the waitlist for the next Mental Gladiator program, go to smartmind.com/gladiator and check it out. What we're looking for is athletes who are looking to take control over their preparation and their performance, to eliminate choking.
And so until the next episode of Brain in the Game, train smart and enjoy the ride. My name's Dave Diggle. I look forward to seeing you on the next Brain in the Game.